Joey Ruggiero, a local healthcare worker and dedicated volunteer in the LGBT community, died suddenly April 14. He was 28.
Friends of Ruggiero say he passed away in his sleep at his home in Hazelton. A Luzerne County Coroner’s Office spokesperson said the cause of death had not yet been determined.
Ruggiero was a native of Hazelton but lived in Philadelphia since 2004, then recently moved back to Hazelton to help out at home.
A 1998 graduate of Hazelton High School, Ruggiero went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wilkes University in 2002.
Ruggiero began his career as a crisis worker at Turning Point Behavioral Health shortly after graduation, a position he held until May 2003, when he was hired as a discharge specialist at UnitedHealth Group. Ruggiero stayed in this position until February 2008, when he transitioned to his most recent job as a contract analyst at UnitedHealthcare, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group.
Christina Molieri, Ruggiero’s friend, said he had planned to go back to school and get his doctorate in psychology, and had taken some master’s of public health courses at Arcadia University but had to stop because of work commitments.
Despite his work schedule, Ruggiero found plenty of time to give back to the local LGBT community.
Ruggiero served on the planning committees for Sapphire Fund’s Blue Ball and Emerge parties and worked at such events as the First Person Arts Festival, Lucky Lounge parties and the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, now known as QFest.
Parinda Patel, director of operations for QFest and CineFest, said Ruggiero began as an usher for the event about three years ago and became a manager by his second year.
“He has been on the top of my list of dedicated, reliable volunteers,” Patel said, “and he was always recruiting his friends to help out. I have been in touch with quite a few [members] of the PIGLFF/QFest volunteer family that had befriended Joey during the festival and he will be missed.”
Ruggiero was also a valued volunteer at such organizations as Philadelphia Cares, the Human Rights Campaign, the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society and the William Way LGBT Community Center.
’Dolph Ward Goldenburg, executive director of the center, said Ruggiero helped out at a number of events the center hosted, such as its Building Bash, Volunteer-recognition Night and Indigo Ball, and was always ready to go above and beyond what is expected of a volunteer.
“He was vivacious and incredibly supportive and an amazing special-event volunteer,” Goldenburg said. “No task that we gave to him was too big or too small.”
Molieri said Ruggiero was naturally drawn toward volunteer work.
“He was always interested in helping others, fighting for others and fighting for what he saw as just causes,” she said. “That’s what motivated him — it was his want to give back and to donate his time and his energy to these causes. That’s when he was the happiest.”
Molieri called Ruggiero the “quintessential social networker” and noted that his funeral last month drew friends from throughout Philadelphia, the suburbs and even New York.
“Such a large range of people came and that just showed the way that he was,” she said. “He was in his element when he was surrounded by friends — friends from work, people that he met just being out or through other people and friends he met through volunteering in the community.”
Molieri noted that Ruggiero had the type of outgoing personality that drew people toward him, but that he also emanated a sincerity and compassion that made him a true friend.
“He was someone who didn’t care what other people thought; if he wanted to throw an impromptu dance party at the jukebox, he would just go right ahead and do that. He wouldn’t care what people said about him, and he’d even encourage everyone to join in with him,” she said. “But then the next moment he could be sitting in your living room having a conversation about architecture, history, politics, literature, movies. He was so brilliant and intelligent, and an extremely loyal and caring friend. He got a real sense of joy for being able to do things for others.”
Ruggiero was preceded in death by his paternal grandfather, Joseph Ruggiero, and his maternal grandparents, Michael and Emma Bunchalk. He is survived by parents Joseph and Carol Ruggiero; sister Lisa; maternal grandmother Antonette Ruggiero; goddaughter Katiana; dog Tank; and countless friends.
Friends of Ruggiero will hold a memorial party in his honor May 8 at the Westbury Bar, 261 S. 13th St. During the event, donations will be accepted that will be contributed in his name to some of his favorite causes.
For more information about the memorial, call Christina Molieri at (267) 496-2564.